THE BLAME CHANGER

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AC­CORD­ING TO A RE­CENT YALE SUR­VEY, 7 IN 10 Amer­i­cans be­lieve global warm­ing is real and hap­pen­ing. And 6 in 10 be­lieve it is af­fect­ing U.S. weather. But only 1 in 3 say they’ve per­son­ally felt its effects. That dis­con­nect stuck with Heidi Cullen. “You’re never go­ing to think of it as an is­sue that’s ur­gent un­less you rec­og­nize the fact that you’re al­ready be­ing im­pacted,” says Cullen, chief sci­en­tist for the non­profit Cli­mate Cen­tral. Now in its ninth year, Cli­mate Cen­tral is part re­search hub and part jour­nal­ism out­fit—an un­usual hy­brid that tries to con­nect cli­mate change to peo­ple’s lives.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion’s lat­est project, World Weather At­tri­bu­tion, iden­ti­fies di­rect links be­tween ex­treme weather events and global warm­ing. Cullen and her team cre­ated the pro­gram af­ter re­al­iz­ing that while the tools for at­tribut­ing such events have evolved, the re­sults were com­ing out too late to in­flu­ence the con­ver­sa­tion. Cullen also wor­ried that me­dia cov­er­ing ex­treme weather oper­ated off out­dated in­for­ma­tion: They would say you couldn’t tie any spe­cific event to cli­mate change. “Now the tech­niques ex­ist,” Cullen says. So she set out to pro­vide ob­jec­tive an­swers, swiftly. Re­searchers from Cli­mate Cen­tral and other in­sti­tu­tions around the world com­bine in­for­ma­tion from cli­mate mod­els, on-the-ground ob­ser­va­tions, and a range of peer-re­viewed re­search to sup­ply ev­i­dence for their re­ports. Re­cently, her team de­ter­mined that global warm­ing made 2017’s ex­cep­tion­ally warm Fe­bru­ary in the U.S. at least three times more likely.

Con­nect­ing science to reg­u­lar peo­ple’s lives is sec­ond na­ture to Cullen, but that wasn’t al­ways the case. Back in 2002, when she was fore­cast­ing droughts at the Na­tional Cen­ter for At­mo­spheric Re­search in Boul­der, Colorado, a pro­ducer from the Weather Chan­nel called. They wanted to hire a cli­mate ex­pert to ap­pear on air. It was four years be­fore An In­con­ve­nient Truth, and many Amer­i­cans were just open­ing their eyes to global warm­ing. “It seemed like a re­ally im­por­tant mo­ment,” Cullen says. She packed up and headed for At­lanta.

Cullen ar­rived at the Weather Chan­nel a com­plete com­mu­ni­ca­tion novice, un­sure of how to con­vey any sci­en­tific info suc­cinctly, and clue­less about makeup and other ac­cou­ter­ment of tele­vi­sion per­son­al­i­ties. She would sub­mit scripts for short seg­ments to the pro­duc­ers, “and they would shake their heads” at the overly com­plex, jar­gon-laden writ­ing, she re­calls. “I’d walk down the hall­way, and they would start singing ‘She Blinded Me with Science.’” Even­tu­ally, though, Cullen be­came a pro, earn­ing her own weekly show.

In 2008, Prince­ton ecol­o­gist Stephen Pa­cala con­tacted her about join­ing Cli­mate Cen­tral. Her first project was a pro­gram to en­able me­te­o­rol­o­gists to con­nect the dots be­tween lo­cal weather and global warm­ing. For World Weather At­tri­bu­tion, Cullen is as likely to do the re­search that will be used in re­ports as write up re­sults based on oth­ers’ in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

For some­one who’s been im­mersed in the scary re­al­i­ties of global warm­ing for so long, Cullen is sur­pris­ingly op­ti­mistic. She cred­its two things. One, she’s found a proven method for stay­ing up­beat: pup­pies, which she trains for the See­ing Eye, the na­tion’s old­est guide­dog train­ing pro­gram. Her cur­rent charge is a Lab/golden cross named Earl. “It’s a coun­ter­point to cli­mate change.” The other, she says, is that in her field, “you look with this longterm per­spec­tive.” That’s help­ing her ride out the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion’s di­rect at­tacks on science. “Four years isn’t a long time.”

“YOU’RE NEVER GO­ING TO THINK OF GLOBAL WARM­ING AS AN IS­SUE THAT’S UR­GENT UN­LESS YOU REC­OG­NIZE THE FACT THAT YOU’RE AL­READY BE­ING IM­PACTED.”

By Hil­lary Ros­ner / pho­to­graph by Mar­ius Bugge

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